Wednesday, February 15, 2012

THE COMEDY IS FINISHED by Donald E. Westlake

"The rediscovered Donald E. Westlake novel, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, is getting some great reviews. Regular readers of these updates know that I had the manuscript for the novel in my basement (actually a drawer in a cabinet in my basement, with other Westlake materials). Don and I had explored revising the novel for publication under both our names (or possibly a joint pseudonym) after he had difficulty finding a publisher for an unfunny Westlake novel about a Bob Hope-style comedian. The book didn’t really need any work, but he was sick of looking at it, and I had some ideas about streamlining, and addressing some complaints editors had expressed about the political content. But when the similarly plotted film “King of Comedy” came out, Don called me and scrapped the project." Max Allan Collins from

Yes, thanks to Max and Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime we're now able to read what may well be the last original Donald Westlake to see print.

Comedy deals with the comedian Koo Davis (think Bob Hope) being kidnapped just after taping another one of his uninspired and frequently self-congratulatory TV shows by a small group of mismatched hippie would-be revolutionaries.

The novel cuts back and forth between Koo using his captivity to relive his life and his captors arguing among themselves about how to best use the comedian as a bargaining chip with the powers that be. Westlake (and the readers) have a good time with Koo. Westlake avoids caricature and gives us a man who no longer understands the entertainment world--not even hanging out with generals and sports stars gives him much cache anymore--and must now face what a lousy father and husband he's been. He even wonders if he's "worth" kidnapping.

The captors are headed up by a secretive young man named Peter who is constantly being prodded by Mark, a sociopath who is dangerous even to the group itself. The others include a wistful theorist named Larry and two women, Liz, deeply troubled and confused and Joyce who held the studio job that secured the kidnapping.

Westlake makes all the charactersindividuals and it is their sniping, arguing even fighting that make the novel a real page turner.

These are the children of the faux Revolution as well as the Revolution of hippie Los Angeles with all the bravado and naivete that marked their fury. It's interesting to contrast their portraits here with an earlier novel Westlake wrote, Murder Among Children as by Tucker Coe. This appeared at the start of the Flower Power days and his take on hippies was much more benign.

Westlake was frequently a social critic in his novels and he is no less so here. He captures the late 70s perfectly, the waning times of Up Against The Wall Motherfucker as disco music played in the background. The kidnappers here are stranded in time--the cops were now killing Black Panthers in cold blood and getting away with it. The Revolution, such as it was, was long over.

While there are similarities between The Comedy is Finished and King of Comedy, King is entertaining and admirable but cold; Westlake's book is hot with fear, remorse, lust and violence. The reader is constantly speculating on how it'll end and who'll still be alive on the last page. The tight structure--we basically have the house the hippies are ensconced in and the scenes with the lawmen--embellishes the suspense and heightens the twists.

A fine novel in all respects. And all thanks to Max Collins and Charles Ardai for giving it to us.

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

The title reminds me of Constantine Fitzgibbon's dystopian novel WHEN THE KISSING HAD TO STOP.